Taking Nigerian football back to the basics?

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By Rotimi Fasan

AFTER many nail-biting years of wondering what to do with the national football team, the Super Eagles or Super Chickens as some derisively call them, a Nigerian government finally seems set to begin the process of returning football from an agonizing and disappointing exercise of nerves to a game that has been the source of both personal and collective joy to hundreds of millions of Nigerians.

The last straw was the lackluster performance of the national team at the on-going World Cup in South Africa. Following flashes of brilliance that raised the hopes of many Nigerians who ought to know better than to trust in the vacuous promise of tired legs that should be resting quietly in retirement- after the nerve-wracking anxieties of the past many months that saw the Nigerian team wobbling through the preliminary stages in which they depended on the failure of others to advance, the team was at last rightly sent out of the first mundial to be held in Africa.

And the Goodluck Jonathan government that had spent millions of dollars that could have been more gainfully employed on the team quickly followed with a two-year ban on them from taking part in FIFA-organised competitions at the senior level. This came in the wake of recommendations of the Presidential Task Force of the World Cup.

You can immediately see the confusion in football management in Nigeria in the fact that a presidential task force had to be set up to manage our participation in the World Cup. The Task Force, headed by Rotimi Amaechi, Governor of Rivers State, must be the only one of its kind in the world.

It’s indeed strange to imagine that after the huge amount of funds (purportedly paid into private pockets) government expends on football management in Nigeria, the country still had to cobble together a task force, an ad hoc body, to see to our going to South Africa. To demonstrate the level of corruption in the football house, the very management of funds for the World Cup is right now the subject of some kind of criminal investigation ordered by the government.

Even though one can rightly say that sports in Nigeria refers to football and that the country’s ministers of sports are in fact ministers of football given the overwhelming attention given to it, there is little to give one joy or hope in Nigerian football. The few moments of national joy in the last 25 years or thereabout have come as a result of our fielding over-aged players in age-grade competitions.

Thus corruption has defined our theory and practice of football for quite a long time now. As such, there was nothing surprising in the elimination of the Super Eagles from the World Cup. What would have been surprising and at once damaging to the future growth of football in the country was if the national team had moved beyond the first round.

The performance of the team has at the best of times been worse than middling, characterised, as it was, by the usual lack of preparation that has led us to adopting fire-fighting measures that tended to see us calling on God to come to our aid when all that was needed was clear-eyed planning. We always expect to reap where we have not sown and pretend that we are the only praying nation on earth even if our prayers are often stained by a touch of opportunism.

If we had gone beyond the first round stage, even made what could be seen as above average performance we would have returned to our old ways of over-determined roguery that breeds more corruption: Refusing to fashion a credible programme of youth development in the sports, not just football, ensuring transparency in funds management and in the selection of players and managers of the national team, etc.

But it is not enough to ban the team from international competitions. There must be put in place a solid programme for growing sports generally in Nigeria and football in particular. We should begin to insist on homegrown managers of the game, rather than the infantile dependence on foreigners to help manage our teams. The local league has to be revamped because the corruption that is manifested at the national level many times has its roots at the local level where managers, players and even referees can and are wantonly bribed to win or lose a game.

The local leagues with such teams as the Rangers, IICC Shooting Stars (now 3SC), Leventis United and Stationery Stores, among many others, that used to be great revenue earners and caused great excitement for Nigerians have been left dying. Today Nigerians, even government officials, are proud defenders and supporters of foreign teams, especially those of the Premiership and others in the European leagues. “Up Blues!” and “Gunners for life” are the noises you hear by a people forever determined to be consumers of other people’s products- rarely if ever producers!

The same tactic of offering bribe in place of entitlements and corruption at all levels of sports management is what the government adopts at the national level when it promises to give generous bonuses to players that are past their prime and are B-grade participants if not outright benchwarmers in the various teams across the world where they earn their keep as players.

Corruption as the bane of sports management in Nigeria cannot be overemphasised. We see it all around us. While serious countries were purposeful in their approach to the mundial, scouting around for the best players their countries could find, Nigerians were filling their planes with families of officials, relations and friends.

The supporters club is led by a sit-tight former president that now goes by the grandiose title of President-General! A few years ago, Wole Soyinka advocated the closure of Nigerian universities for two years in order to arrest the rot in the system, the same way the late Tai Solarin used to advocate the imposition of ban on certain products until Nigerians are able to produce them. Neither men were praised for their advocacy nor has Nigeria improved in the two areas in question. The ban on the Super Eagles may not achieve much but let us see where it can take us.

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